A couple weeks ago, between stints in New York City, Connecticut, and Maine, I had a chance to visit with my close friends Ryan Burk and Eva Deitch in Beacon, NY in the Hudson Valley during that perfect time of year when the hills are on fire.
Just an hour or so north of New York City in Walden New York, Ryan is working on a career-making project as Angry Orchard's new cidermaker as they build a new home on a sprawling orchard overlooking the valley. It's an important new exploration for the country's largest cider maker, better known for its mainstream, semi-sweet offerings that constitute approximately 60% of the market, even as long-established competitors like Woodchuck watch their share dwindle and new entries from AB-Inbev (Johnny Appleseed) and MillerCoors (Smith & Forge) plod along.
As the Hudson Valley project, devoted to wild fermentation, barrel-aging, and a host of other experiments, gets off the ground this month, Ryan's first project actually entered the market via Boston Beer's highly-technical facility in Cincinnati, home to most of the major brands produced by Boston Beer today. Stone Dry, the driest cider ever produced by Angry Orchard went national this month, which is positioned to both meet a growing demand for more complex and dry finish ciders, as well as help shift the national palate towards the kind of ciders that are likely to come out of the Hudson Valley project. While most large companies might be inclined to rest on their laurels and protect the kind of market share Angry Orchard does, I'm personally impressed to see them using that influence to elevate an entire category.
Angry Orchard sources almost all their fruit from massive producers in Europe where they can tap into the biggest, and some say best, bittersweet and bittersharp apples in the world. Entire valley floors are covered with netted orchards as far as the eye can see (you should follow Ryan's Instagram if you want a better view from the ground.) Those apples are pressed and concentrated for efficient shipment back to the US where fermentation begins. Sourcing this much pressed juice from these kinds of traditional fruit would be impossible anywhere else in the world — the planting of new cider trees in the U.S. is finally getting underway, which will create a larger source for small cider makers, but it'll be generations before there's a chance to compete with Europe's output, if ever.
But zooming in on the relatively small estate in Walden is to see a cider making operation of a completely different sort, more akin to orchard-driven producers like E.Z. Orchards in Salem, OR or Farnhum Hill in New Hampshire. Ryan and his assistant cidermaker, Anna Hasan, who has a viticulture background, walk the grounds as construction finishes in anticipation of their November launch. They're flanked on both sides by an orchard still operated by the original land-owner, with a number of heirloom varieties and traditional cider-making apples, all of which are fair game for the new program where the apples will be pressed on-site, fermented in steel and/or wood, and aged in French oak vats, a variety of spirits barrels, and foudres. The property also has existing barns and outbuildings that are being converted into barrel-aging rooms and cold storage for the harvest.
It's clear from the new structure and tasting room with huge glass doors overlooking the valley that this is about more than just small-batch experimentation for Angry Orchard. These days, breweries and cideries can't just exist in the clouds. They need a home. That's as true for the traveling drinkers wearing new paths across the American landscape looking for their next favorite pint as it is for the brewers and cider makers themselves. A home is a place where you get to meet your customer face-to-face over the bar top, and work on long-term projects that require tinkering, learning, and sharing with like-minded colleagues in a personal setting. And for cidermakers like Ryan, it's also critical to be with the fruit as it grows, nears harvest, and gets pressed. Right now he travels to Europe every few months to acquire that sort of hands-on knowledge of the fruit they're sourcing for their national brands (seriously, his Instagram is mind-blowing), but for the small-batch innovation in Walden, he'll have the luxury of walking in to those fields daily, and on a whim. It's good for the creative mind, and I've never seen him more at ease than now, overlooking his bounty and resources.
This was a big move for Ryan, physically and spiritually. He had to leave his colleagues and friends in Michigan and Chicago behind for the rural hills of the Hudson Valley in order to take on this challenging and ambitious project with the largest cider company in the country. He and Eva, a well-known photographer, bought their first house in nearby Beacon, and are less than a month settling in as the orchard project approaches its full launch. But sitting on the front porch with them and their dog Reuben, I wouldn't have known the topsy-turvy aspects of such a major life-change. Rather, things seemed settled. There was a long-term plan.. And there was a place to call home.
I've had a chance to try some of Ryan's smallest experimental batches of late, and I couldn't be more thrilled with the results. As the project gets up and running and opens fully to the public, I'll be making my way back to more fully document the operation and life of the cidery. For now, I hope you enjoyed a very personal first look of what's to come.
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